The time has come, the Walrus said…

Talk of Many Things is smaller than modern annuals, and my copy has lost its shiny paper dust jacket. It was a First Prize at Westcolt Infant’s School in 1944, and time has not been kind to its exterior. Or perhaps it’s just been well read, though not by me, for a long time.

So long, in fact, that I’d forgotten what was inside. The subtitle promises, A Book of True Fact and True Fancy in Prose and Verse. Now there’s a promise I can’t resist, it’s so much in keeping with that conversation the Walrus had with the Carpenter. Sure enough, on page 26, there is the whole Lewis Carol poem, plus an illustration of the grieving gourmands preparing to eat their companions.

I flick on through. Oh, that paper, it’s what tactile reading is about, smooth surfaced, and heavy. There are some lovely illustrations, in bright strong colour, as well as nice line drawings.

What starts as a browse becomes a dipping-in. My attention is caught by Dust and Clouds. It begins:

It is always exciting to watch something that appears and disappears as if it had a “cloak of invisibility” like a prince in a fairy tale. That is why most people like to look at the tiny specks dancing in the beam of light that steals between the curtains into a dark room.

Instead of skipping straight on to the True Fancy I began reading science. Is this True Fact? There’s certainly plenty of knowledge, but it’s a long way from dry.

Did you ever watch dust motes in a shaft of sunshine? Look at how Maribel Edwin explains it.

Children playing at signalling with small mirrors can exchange messages from a long way off. When they are standing far apart they cannot see each other’s mirrors, but the flashes of light are perfectly clear. In the same way it is not the finer motes themselves that are seen, but simply the play of light on their surfaces.

Reading this as an adult, it is not the science that captures me, it’s memories. In writing for children, all those decades ago, Maribel Edwin has reminded me of the wonder I remember.

Dust and light together make pretty patterns in a shaded room; but, what is much more wonderful is, that it is dust that makes the sky so beautiful. There is dust in the heart of every raindrop and snowflake, in every cloud or wisp of mist, no matter how white it looks.

Which suggests to me that since we can’t avoid the stuff, maybe there’s no need for me to spend time on one of the most tedious parts of housework there is. I can’t think why I haven’t read this before.